One of the original stars of Iron Chef, Masaharu Morimoto has built a career on fusion cuisine, and recently opened a unique new restaurant in Kyoto.
When Masaharu Morimoto debuted in 1998 as an iron chef on Fuji Television’s original incarnation of the celebrity chef cooking competition, the Japanese judges were astounded by the young upstart’s fusion of ingredients. One sauce in particular married miso with caviar.
Morimoto’s reputation as a culinary maverick in New York City’s premier restaurants had preceded him, and he adorned his winning dish with a Statue of Liberty figurine. A bottle of Coca Cola that was always by his side became one of his signatures. With a penchant for “twisting” ingredients, he once combined cola with natto during competition.
His rivalry with Bobby Flay became legendary, with Morimoto chastising Flay after their first battle when Flay jumped on the counter, standing on his cutting board. The controversy caught the eye of the Food Network. When Iron Chef moved to American television in 1999, Morimoto was one of the four original iron chefs, with his rematch with Flay being the early draw.
“Iron Chef allowed me to show the world what I stood for when it comes to food and respect for ingredients and my passion for cooking,” says Morimoto. “If I had never done Iron Chef, I would still be a chef today, but maybe I would not have restaurants around the entire world.”
Morimoto has 18 operations around the world to his name, including in Mumbai, Mexico City, Dubai and Tokyo (Atelier Morimoto XEX, the one-star Michelin teppanyaki restaurant in Roppongi). His most recent restaurant, Morimoto Kyoto, opened on September 27 along Pontocho Alley, the cobbled thoroughfare near Kyoto’s Kamogawa River.
Here in the pedestrian-only neighborhood lined with preserved, traditional teahouses, high-end restaurants and local eateries, visitors can catch glimpses of geiko (Kyoto’s geisha) as they make their way to evening appearances. A restaurant’s setting is as important to Morimoto as the menu and ingredients. Morimoto New York, designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando, earned the James Beard Award for outstanding restaurant design. Just as glamorous, Morimoto Kyoto is housed in a renovated, two-story traditional machiya-style townhouse, complete with riverside outdoor seating.
“Morimoto Kyoto uses the highest quality of ingredients, and I personally select the best meat in Japan,” he says. “I would like to make dishes, however, that make our guests from the all over the world happy.”
With offerings such as sashimi tacos, foie gras “chawanmushi” and beef tongue sashimi, the menu showcases Chef Morimoto’s signature style of cooking, seamlessly integrating Japanese and Western ingredients and culinary techniques.
“The first restaurant I ever opened was in my hometown of Hiroshima, Japan when I was 24. Now four decades later, I’m so proud to be opening in Pontocho Alley, an area rooted in centuries of history and tradition,” he says.
As Morimoto explains in the lengthy, intimate introduction to his first cookbook, Morimoto: The New Art of Japanese Cooking, home life in Hiroshima was volatile. His father, an engineer at a printing company, flew into nightly drunken rages, sometimes becoming violent towards his mother. By the time he was a teenager, Morimoto had moved a dozen times as landlords would evict the family following explosive episodes.
A promising baseball career was derailed by a shoulder injury, and Morimoto turned to the sushi restaurant, the only place he found peace as a child, mesmerized by the chefs’ speed and precision during his family’s monthly outings.
Starting as a dishwasher, Morimoto worked his way through the ranks for eight years, living in a room above the sushi joint. He launched his own restaurant in Hiroshima at age 24. To help pay bills he also delivered newspapers and sold insurance.
“The most important lesson I have learned is that guests know if you are not putting your whole soul into the food”
“When I opened my first restaurant I was very young but I studied very hard to be the best that I could be,” says Morimoto. “The most important lesson I have learned is that guests know if you are not putting your whole soul into the food, so each meal must be cooked with care and attention and love.”
With sushi restaurants becoming popular in the United States, in 1985 he and his wife decided to explore the US for a year. Their first stop was New York City. They never completed their journey, and they have yet to return to live in Japan.
Originally living in the rough East Village, Morimoto recalls New York City being “scary and cold.” He worked at multiple sushi restaurants simultaneously before taking a job at the Sony Club’s private executive dining room. It was at this five-seat sushi bar that he was discovered by Chef Nobu Matsuhisa.
Famous for fusion cuisine blending Japanese dishes with Peruvian ingredients, Matsuhisa opened Nobu New York in 1994 with his business partner Robert De Niro and the eatery was promptly named the James Beard Foundation’s best new restaurant.
With Matsuhisa spending much of his time at his flagship restaurant in Los Angeles, Morimoto took the lead, earning a three-star review from the New York Times, and promoting himself to executive chef.
“I came to New York with ambitions,” says Morimoto. “I expected so much of myself and New York offered the opportunity for me to challenge myself to be the best I could be.”
During a vacation back home to Japan, Morimoto cooked a meal for friends of friends, unknowing that one of his dinner guests was a producer of Fuji TV’s Iron Chef. Months later he received a phone call out of the blue, and next thing, sporting a silver chef’s coat with a red, white and blue insignia, he was the star of Kitchen Stadium.
“Iron Chef and Iron Chef America were incredibly difficult and challenging performances. I don’t know if the fans watching really understood that, but it was very hard work to be in Kitchen Stadium,” says Morimoto. “I do remember the entire experience with a sense of pride that I did my best during each matchup and was able to show the world my personal style of cooking.”
Ready to showcase his own cuisine, in 2001 Morimoto partnered with restaurateur Stephen Starr to open Morimoto Restaurant in Philadelphia. After rave reviews, five years later he opened Morimoto New York.
With celebrity fans ranging from US presidents to Major League Baseball players, his restaurants have garnered critical and popular acclaim. In 2020 he will open his third restaurant in NYC. For now, his sights are set on opening Morimoto Kyoto, “a meaningful and personal experience.”
“For me, each new restaurant is like a new child born into the family and just as important to me as the first,” says Morimoto. “Opening a location in historic Kyoto is especially important to me as it’s one of the truly great cities of Japan.”